A few weeks ago @LarryRosemann posed a question to me on Twitter:
Doug, how much 'writing' time should be for learning? Books, seminars, etc.. Thanks.
It’s an interesting dilemma, especially when you are starting out. On the one hand, you must learn your craft to have any chance of success. At the very least you need to learn proper format and the unique process by which words on a page get turned into images on a screen. If you want to work in Hollywood, not knowing these things is like not knowing the English language.
But screenwriting is also a complex and difficult craft. Throughout movie history there may have been a handful of geniuses who simply sat down and started writing and, after many drafts and much trial and error, somehow came up with a workable screenplay. But most successful screenwriters spent considerable time learning craft and technique from others. Nobody can teach you to have insightful, original ideas, but it is possible to learn an enormous amount about how best to bring those ideas to fruition.
On the other hand, how can you be a successful writer if you don’t write? In fact, you will learn the most by doing. You won’t really be able to fully grasp the concepts in books and classes until you try to apply those concepts in your own work. And of course, until you have a body of quality work, you will not be able to get attention from the industry.
Even successful screenwriters wrestle with balancing these competing demands. Nobody ever feels like they “know everything.” Many of us who have had movies produced still attend seminars and read the latest hot screenwriting books, looking for any tip that can make our writing better, or any edge that can help our careers.
If you are serious about being a professional screenwriter, my recommendation is to write every day for a minimum of an hour (with email and phone turned off). Writing every day is more important than how long you write in a sitting. Writing is like exercising – when you get in the habit, it’s much easier to do than when you try to resume after a long layoff. Equally important, daily writing will create momentum in the story you’re working on – you’ll find yourself thinking about it in the shower and the car. This amounts to “bonus” writing time.
And then you have to figure out how to shoehorn time to study the craft of writing into your schedule as well. Not only that, if you want to be a pro, you have to follow industry news, which means making time to read the trades and/or Deadline.com. Plus, you should be constantly reading other screenplays. And you have to make time for networking. Whew!
If you have a full time day job, this will be a challenge. But you have to remember that you are competing against people who pursue screenwriting full time – or more. Yes it’s hard. But nobody owes you a career as a screenwriter. You have to earn it.
Underlying the question of how much time to spend on books and seminars is the question of how valuable those things really are. As I mentioned, there is plenty to be learned about screenwriting. But just as there are many bad screenplays, there are many questionable books and seminars purporting to tell you how to write. In fact, it’s fairly easy for someone to just create a website and label themselves a guru or expert with little qualification. Who’s to stop them from self-publishing a book or renting a conference room at a hotel for a seminar and then collecting money from eager young writers?
It can help to look to people with produced credits. They at least have some practical experience and a record of success. But produced writers aren’t necessarily the best teachers. Established university screenwriting programs are also pretty safe bets since their faculty had to be at least minimally qualified in order to get the job in the first place. But not everyone is in a position to take a degree program in screenwriting. So you have to do your research, reading reviews and asking fellow screenwriters to recommend things that have helped them. (For the record, I am both produced and on the faculty of a college.)
And even the best screenwriting teachers and gurus (maybe especially the best) know that most of their students will never see their screenplays produced. This has less to do with the quality of the teacher/guru than with the fact that there are far more aspiring screenwriters than screenwriting jobs. Speaking as one who is part of it, the whole “educating screenwriters” industry sometimes feels like a big scam.
Yet many new screenwriters enter the business every year, and almost all learned their craft from professional teachers or gurus, whether in classes or from books. I personally have seen several of my students go on to have movies produced. It's a great feeling and really the reason I do things like write this blog.
Again, the film business is hard and nobody owes you anything. So write every day and study your craft. Carve out time to follow the business and network. And work really, really hard. Your competition is.